Country profile: India
Country profile: India
The world’s largest democracy and second most populous country has emerged as a major power after a period of foreign rule and several decades during which its economy was virtually closed.
A nuclear weapons state, it carried out tests in the 1970s and again in the 1990s in defiance of world opinion. However, India is still tackling huge social, economic and environmental problems.
The vast and diverse Indian sub-continent – from the mountainous Afghan frontier to the jungles of Burma – was under foreign rule from the early 1800s until the demise of the British Raj in 1947.
But the subsequent partition of the sub-continent sowed the seeds for future conflict. There have been three wars between India and its arch-rival Pakistan since 1947, two of them over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
A peace process, which started in 2004, has stayed on track despite tension over Kashmir and several high-profile bombings, such as the attack on Mumbai’s train network in July 2006 which police blamed on Pakistani militants and a banned Indian group.
Communal, caste and regional tensions continue to haunt Indian politics, sometimes threatening its long-standing democratic and secular ethos.
In 1984 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards after ordering troops to flush out Sikh militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
And in 1992, widespread Hindu-Muslim violence erupted after Hindu extremists demolished the Babri mosque at Ayodhya.
Independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, dreamed of a socialist society and created a vast public infrastructure, much of which became a burden on the state.
From the late 1980s India began to open up to the outside world, encouraging economic reform and foreign investment. It is now courted by the world’s leading economic and political powers, including its one-time foe China.
The country has a burgeoning urban middle class and has made great strides in fields such as information technology. Its large, skilled workforce makes it a popular choice for international companies seeking to outsource work.
Nuclear tests carried out by India in May 1998 and similar tests by Pakistan just weeks later provoked international condemnation and concern over the stability of the region.
The US quickly imposed sanctions on India, but more recently the two countries have improved their ties, and even agreed to share nuclear technology.
India launches its own satellites and plans to send a spacecraft to the moon.
But the vast mass of the rural population remains illiterate and impoverished.
Their lives continue to be dominated by the ancient Hindu caste system, which assigns each person a fixed place in the social hierarchy.
President: Pratibha Patil
Pratibha Patil became India’s first female president in July 2007, after being voted into office by members of state assemblies and the national parliament.
Mrs Patil, the candidate of the ruling Congress Party, was previously the little-known governor of the northwestern desert state of Rajasthan. She drew criticism during the campaign over scandals involving family members, and over controversial remarks.
Supporters hailed her election as a victory for women, but critics wondered how much influence she would have.
India has had several women in powerful positions – most notably Indira Gandhi, one of the world’s first female prime ministers in 1966 – but activists complain that women still face widespread discrimination.
Mrs Patil succeeds APJ Abdul Kalam, a scientist and the architect of the country’s missile programme.
Indian presidents have few actual powers, but they can decide which party or individual should form the central government after general elections.
Prime minister: Manmohan Singh
Manmohan Singh became prime minister in May 2004 after the Congress Party’s unexpected success in general elections.
The party’s president, Sonia Gandhi, the widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, shocked her supporters by declining the top post, apparently to protect the party from damaging attacks over her Italian origin.
Mr Singh said his priorities were to reduce poverty and to plough on with economic reforms. He stated a desire for friendly relations with India’s neighbours, especially Pakistan.
During his first year in office he held together a coalition which included communist allies and ministers accused of corruption. He continued to pursue market-friendly economic policies and oversaw the introduction of nuclear non-proliferation legislation.
But his promised “New Deal” for rural India – an attempt to raise the poorest citizens out of poverty – has still to bear fruit.
Mr Singh made his reputation as a finance minister in the early 1990s, under the Narasimha Rao government, when he was the driving force behind economic liberalisation.
When the Congress Party was voted out of office, Mr Singh became opposition leader in the upper house.
A Sikh born in West Punjab, Mr Singh is a former International Monetary Fund official and governor of India’s Central Bank. He was educated at Oxford and Cambridge.
Broadcasting in India has flourished since state TV’s monopoly was broken in 1992. The array of channels is still growing.
Privately-owned cable and satellite stations command large audiences. Star Plus – run by the global media giant News Corporation – is one of the most popular. Its version of the game show “Who Wants to be a Millionnaire?” proved to be one of the channel’s biggest draws.
News broadcasts are also popular, often outperforming entertainment shows. Many 24-hour news channels are up and running and more are planned.
Doordarshan, the public TV service, operates 21 services including its flagship DD1 channel, which reaches some 400 million viewers.
Two multichannel, direct-to-home (DTH) TV operations – the Zee Group’s subscription-based Dish TV and a free-to-air offering from Doordarshan – are recent arrivals on the satellite scene. A third DTH venture, Tata-Sky, launched in August 2006.
India’s cable TV market is one of the world’s largest, with more than 60 million subscribers.
Private radio is a relative newcomer. Since they were sanctioned in 2000, music-based FM stations have proliferated in the cities and hundreds more licences are up for grabs. But only public All India Radio (AIR) can broadcast news.
India’s press is lively. Driven by a growing middle class, newspaper circulation has risen and new titles compete with established dailies.
India and neighbouring Pakistan sometimes engage in a war of words via their respective media, occasionally banning relays of broadcasts from the other country.
Internet use has soared; around 42 million Indians were online by 2007 (Internetworldstats.com).